Ohio Valley History: How the towns got their shape

A few years ago the History Channel ran a series called “How States Got Their Shapes,” which asked questions like: Why does West Virginia have two weird panhandles? (For Union control of the B&O Railroad, of course.) And why does Michigan control the Upper Peninsula? (Compensation for Ohio the Toledo Strip.)

We could easily ask similar questions about this area. Why is downtown Gallipolis a few miles south of the more logical location across from the mouth of the Kanawha River? Why was Pomeroy crowded into such a narrow piece of land between the river and the cliffs? And why do Point Pleasant, Gallipolis and Pomeroy look so different despite 200 years of history, industry and family ties? The answers to all three go back to the founding of our cities.

Point Pleasant, the oldest of our three twin towns, was settled and laid out in 1784 by the Lewis family, part of the slave-owning landed gentry of Old Virginia. Though these little slaveholders like the Lewis family were a solid middle class east of the Alleghenies, they idolized the Tidewater aristocrats like the Lees and Washingtons, and saw the Ohio Valley as an opportunity to expand their power and wealth.

Like the Gloucester Courthouse, Point Pleasant was intended to be little more than the marketplace for the surrounding plantations and the seat of local government, with real power being controlled by the remote plantations like Roseberry and Poplar Grove. And although slavery ended in 1865 and industry eventually moved to Mason County, Point Pleasant developed largely according to that original plan. As recently as the 1980s, much of local political power was held by large landowners and farmers, and much of Main Street’s business was down to the stockyards and farmers who came to town.

Because of this, our courthouse has always been at the intersection of the county’s three main roads going north / south and east, why the head of the main road is at the same intersection, and why our city had no true riverside to Main Street Point on two major rivers Pleasant built the current Riverfront Park.

Gallipolis, on the other hand, has its roots in France and New England. The French 500 settled here in 1790 to build a large Catholic town with a large cathedral across from Point Pleasant. When they arrived they found that their deeds sold to them by the Scioto Company were worthless. The real owner, the Ohio Land Company, sent carpenters and lumberjacks from Marietta to help them settle further south near Chickamauga Creek. However, since they did not actually own the land, the settlers’ hopes for a great city were quickly dashed.

The city park was located in this original settlement today. After the Northwest Territory was officially opened to settlement in 1795, it was supported by New Englanders who moved west. These two groups had little in common, came from different backgrounds, and spoke different languages, but both the French and New Englanders knew the value of urban greenery and land.

Initially, the fields and forests around the city were plentiful, but over time the city expanded. The settlers built new, more stable houses, and soon the old huts were cleared to make way for a city green, today’s city park. A public landing was built at the foot of the green, and while Point’s economy was intended to serve local agriculture, Gallipolis was intended to serve river traffic, with tavernas and retail stores being important parts of their business district around the green.

Finally, Pomeroy was the last of our three cities, founded in the 1830s by New England industrialist Samuel Wyllys Pomeroy and his son-in-law Valentine B. Horton. You came here to develop the seemingly endless reserves of coal and salt, and as anyone in these industries can tell you, it’s all about the location. Salt wells can be drilled anywhere above the brine pool, but you will need easily accessible coal to fire the furnace. You don’t want to add to your costs by shipping coal long distances or digging a shaft several hundred feet to reach the seam. This made Pomeroy the perfect location.

In the cliffs on either side of the river, the local coal seams came straight to the surface, and better yet, they were only thirty yards from the river bank. Easily accessible coal, check. Check space in the tight spots to build salt stoves. Check a large river to ship the salt and excess coal. Houses could be built along the caves and ridge lines and that’s all you need for an industrial town.

Coal banks and salt ovens were opened near the mouths of Kerr’s Run, Naylor’s Run, Sugar Run, and Monkey Run. In the midst of these four, a busy business district grew to serve the workers, and it eventually grew large enough to be made a county seat. The neighborhoods grew up in these four caves and along Lincoln Heights, and it was all on the river, the source of the city’s business, industry and wealth.

Within 20 miles you have three completely different historical towns: a southern market town, a river boat stop and a trading town, and a transplanted mill town in New England. All have their own unique and quaint feel and together as a unified tourist destination they couldn’t be stopped.

Information based on the general history of the three cities and my own interpretations of their landscape and architecture.


A view of what is now Second Avenue in downtown Gallipolis across from City Park.

The historic bandstand in the distance in Gallipolis City Park.

Gallipolis, Point Pleasant, Pomeroy

Chris Rizer is President of the Mason County Historical & Preservation Society and Director of Main Street Point Pleasant. Reach him at [email protected]

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